Islay: call to place

MV Finlaggan at Kennacraig

Back in May, we took the ferry from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Askaig on beautiful Islay (pronounced Eye-la) where we spent a wonderful week tramping all over the island. We last visited on our epic Hebridean tour of 1989, parts of which we replicated last summer, so we were well overdue a visit, especially as we had only been there for a couple of days the first time and felt we hadn’t done it justice. Since then, of course, a certain amount of Islay whisky had been consumed and it was not impossible that a distillery – or two, or more – would appear on our itinerary.

John and Janet Sinclair, John and Meg

In addition to the scenery and whisky, another attraction of Islay was the pull of family lore. One of my great-grandfathers, my mother’s maternal grandfather John Joss Sinclair, was born there in 1866. John was destined to be a Church Minister, as decided by his father. However, he declared that he had no intention of going around the countryside with his collar on back to front, and at 16 years old he ran away from the island to mainland Scotland.

Over the next few years John was employed in farms around the West of Scotland and became a noted ploughman. Eventually, he arrived at Kilmacolm to work on The Green Farm where he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Janet Carson. John and Janet’s first child, and only son, John, was born in 1886, sometime before their marriage. By 1901 seven daughters had been added to the family, so Janet’s life must have been a hard slog.

John Sinclair ploughing, 1908

John and Janet worked on farms in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and Amochrie, and John was eventually in charge of a Clydesdale stallion. In his fifties, he gave up farm work and returned to Kilmacolm. They moved into the Bridgend Toll House, which came with his new job in charge of the road-menders. The Toll figures largely in Mum’s many happy memories of her childhood. Here she is in the late 1920s as a baby and toddler, “Wee Chrissie”, with her grandparents. For reference, Janet must be about the same age as I am now. How times have changed!

John never went back to see his parents, only returning to Islay in later life with one of his grandchildren (not my mum) to see his sister Katie MacAffer. He and Janet are both buried in Kilmacolm – compare the gravestone below as it was after my great-grandmother died in 1949, and as it is today. (Thanks to my cousin, Tracy Rice, for the current photo.)

When we visited Islay in 1989 I either didn’t know about this family history or wasn’t especially interested, I can’t remember. However, in the last few years I’ve worked with Mum to blog about her memories – you can read her post John and Janet for a fuller version of what I’ve written here – and now I’m much more aware. I’m not about to start researching our family tree (far too much like hard work) but I love collecting the stories Mum is passing down and decided on our recent visit to Islay to look out for any references to Sinclairs or MacAffers.

So we went to Islay looking for whisky, walking and family history. The next few posts will tell you how we got on. This post, I’m linking to Cathy at ~wander.essence~ who has a monthly Call to Place strand in which she invites you to write about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or future destination. Head over there for her fabulous traveller’s tales!

Haltwhistle: the Centre of Britain

Market Place at the Centre of Britain

The name Haltwhistle comes from “Haut Whyslie” or “high watch between two rivers”. So I learned on our recent visit to this small, Northumbrian town.  Its Market Place dates back to 1207 when King John granted a Charter for weekly markets and two fairs to be held each year.

The town also claims to be the Centre of Britain. Here I am at the marker points this year, and on a previous visit in 2010.

If it surprises you that Britain’s centre should be located so far north, as it did me, see the diagram below. Convinced? Well, maybe. It is definitely plausible, although there are other places which make similar claims.

Whatever, the town certainly makes the most of it as a marketing concept with a Centre of Britain hotel, launderette and shops.

Many of the buildings around the market place originated as Bastles, including the hotel above. These are 16th/17th century defensible houses built to provide protection from border skirmishes between the English and the Scots. Haltwhistle has the highest number of bastles, 6, remaining in England.

It also has a fine example of 13th century architecture in the Church of the Holy Cross, with the addition of 19th century stained glass windows made by the William Morris Company.

I knew nothing of this heritage when I was five years old. What is the significance of that, you might ask? Well, this is the town in which I was born, and five is the age at which my family (by then including a younger sister) moved away to the bigger town (now city) of Sunderland. The War Memorial Hospital has been rebuilt in the last few years (and hasn’t had maternity services for decades) so I had to go online to find a picture of it as it was in the 50s and 60s.

Haltwhistle’s War Memorial Hospital 2019

In 1960 my sister was also born there. In those days, women were confined for almost two weeks after a birth. I wasn’t quite three, but I have clear memories of that time – one of my aunts came to stay to help Dad look after me (no such thing as paternity leave in those days). Every morning I received a postcard from my mum, and sometimes a gift that my wee sister had (allegedly) sent via Dad at visiting time: I particularly remember a small baby doll in a wicker cradle.

Children weren’t allowed to visit the wards, and one day Dad held me up to talk to Mum through the open window. I thought I was going to be handed in to her and screamed all the way home when it didn’t happen (and she tells me she took herself off to the bathroom to howl too).

And this was that home – the Methodist manse in Moor View. The colour image is 2019, the old photos show Mum and Dad posing proudly outside their first married home, probably in 1956.

And here am I at 15 months, toddling in the garden behind that big hedge at the side which looks much the same in 2019 as it did in the 1950s, and the whole family together a few years later.

The house was near the railway bridge – that hasn’t changed much either. This is my late Uncle Jim posing on it in the 1960s when it was fairly new – the stone work is dated 1953.

The railway station is also well-preserved – although now unstaffed, it retains its 1901 signal box, in the shape of a ship’s keel, and other buildings.

Finally, this is the church we went to – one of several where my father was minister – the Primitive Methodist Chapel of 1864, known as Castle Hill Methodist Church when we were there. It has since closed and both it and the Sunday School building, seen on the left behind the church, are private houses. The other Methodist church in town, Westgate, is still functioning.

After our brief, nostalgic (on my part) visit to Haltwhistle we drove on to our final destination for the day: Allendale, where we were to spend a long weekend with friends. More on that next time.

Sheffield 2: more student memories – and a murder enquiry

43 Bates Street

In my last post about our recent visit to Sheffield I confined myself to the university campus and the memories it invoked. This time I’ll be looking at the places I lived: stop reading now if you’re not prepared for a bit of a rant!

In my first year as an undergraduate (1975-6) I lodged in an area called Woodseats, sharing a room with another History student, Hazel. Our landlady was Mrs Fisher and we were her last “girls”. I don’t think we were so bad that we finished her off, but she must have been in her 70s by then and probably finding lodgers too much to deal with. Although I liked both Hazel and Mrs F, this arrangement was quite isolating: I had applied to a Hall of Residence nearer campus but didn’t get a place. Woodseats was two bus-rides from the university which made going out at night tricky: I used the late night buses and occasionally walked home which, in the light of what I am going to write about later in this post, is quite hair-raising to look back on.

Woodseats was too far out to visit, but I did go to see the house I shared with two other students, Janice and Hilary, in my second and third years. 43 Bates Street, a typical two-up two-down terrace seen at the top of the post, was much nearer campus. It was also absolutely freezing with one gas-fire in the living room being the only heating. Upstairs was particularly cold because our rooms extended over the entrance to the back yard and thus had no downstairs to insulate them. After we moved out the owners decided not to rent to students any more and sold the house – hang on, is there a pattern here?

Victoria Street

After graduating in 1978, I left Sheffield for a year to work for Hampshire Libraries (subject of last year’s nostalgic visits: Winchester and me and Southampton and me). When I returned in 1979 I moved into a university flat in Victoria House. I shared with Janet (who featured in March’s Gallivanting post) and four other young women, and John lived in the flat above us (How we met). That block has been demolished (see – it’s a pattern!) and replaced by the modern building just beyond the terrace of houses, pictured above, which terminates in the Bath Hotel.

Bath Hotel, Victoria Street

Both terrace and pub look far more salubrious than they did in our day when they were at the edge of the red-light district. At the time, that impacted on John more than on me, but later it made my blood run cold. John recalls being asked if he was “doing business” by women standing at their front doors and, because he sometimes parked a hired mini-bus in the area (he went caving with the university’s Speleological Society), he was interviewed by police in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry. I have a lot to get off my chest about this, so here comes the rant.

UK readers will no doubt be familiar with the case of Peter Sutcliffe who killed 13 women between 1975 and 1980 (neatly spanning my time in Sheffield) and who became known as the Yorkshire Ripper. I’ve always known the enquiry into the murders was badly botched (Sutcliffe was interviewed 9 times and dismissed before he was finally charged) but a recent documentary showed it was even worse than I had thought. I can forgive an inability to cross-reference thousands of pieces of paper in a pre-computer age. I can’t forgive antediluvian views on women, but can see they were part of the times: the police formed a theory that the killer was “just” targeting prostitutes and women of “loose morals”. You know, the kind who went out to pubs and enjoyed themselves. (Utterly, utterly unforgivable was the retired detective who had learned nothing in 40 years and still appeared to hold similar views.) At the beginning of the killing spree “ordinary” women victims were regarded as mistakes and the evidence of women who had been attacked by what appeared to be the same man, because of his methods, was discounted if they were not prostitutes. Some of these women gave remarkably accurate descriptions of Peter Sutcliffe.

The police were later taken in by a hoax tape and letters from a man calling himself Jack the Ripper. One retired detective said in the documentary that there was nothing in these which had not been in the press, so there was no proof that they came from the killer – when he pointed this out he, as a junior officer, was over-ruled. “Jack” had a Sunderland accent, and the letters were postmarked from there, so anyone interviewed from then on was judged by those criteria. (John was asked when he last visited Sunderland. He didn’t even know where it was.) Many lives could have been saved if the evidence of women survivors who said their attacker had a local accent had been taken seriously, but as it wasn’t the enquiry failed completely. The conscientious policeman who finally caught Sutcliffe in January 1981 was not part of it, yet afterwards the enquiry’s leaders were filmed smiling and congratulating themselves at a press conference. They should have been ashamed to show their faces.

I expect many people who lived in Yorkshire at the time have their stories about how the Ripper touched their lives. As I have said, John was interviewed. A friend of a friend was in the same Bradford pub as student Barbara Leach the night she died in September 1979. Even closer, the final victim, Jacqueline Hill, was an English Literature student at Leeds in the same year-group as my sister. However, Sutcliffe had never killed in Sheffield, which was maybe why I wasn’t worried about going home alone to my lodgings at night. But where was he caught? Here:

Melbourne Avenue, Sheffield

In my postgraduate year, I volunteered as a tutor to a woman from the Bangladeshi community who had little English. To train for this, I attended a few evening classes in a Teachers’ Centre on Melbourne Avenue which starts right where I was standing to take the photograph above. I had no idea it was a place prostitutes took their clients, but this is where Sutcliffe was caught with a young woman who had a very lucky escape. No wonder my blood ran cold when I heard about it. It makes me shiver even now.

When I planned this post, I meant to write about my student homes and then look at the wider city, but anger ran away with me. Normal service will resume next time. For now, I want to end by remembering the following women whose lives were cut short in the most brutal fashion:

Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.

Sheffield 1: campus memories

Halifax Hall Hotel, Sheffield

I spent four happy years as a student at the University of Sheffield. I met John there. Why then, I ask myself, is it 25 years since I last visited the city? I have no answer. However, in February John had a Friday meeting at the University so I tagged along and we made a long weekend of it, staying four nights in Halifax Hall. In my day, Halifax was a student residence – now it’s a very comfortable hotel (with great breakfasts), although it still belongs to the university and alumni get a good discount. From here we sallied forth to re-explore the city. I warn you that the next few posts are going to be jam-packed with nostalgic reminiscing!

A redbrick university

Sheffield is one of a group of “redbrick” universities established in the large, industrial cities of England in the early 20th century. The appearance of Firth Court (1905) might give a clue as to where this name comes from! This is the university’s main administration building which also contains Firth Hall used, amongst other things, for postgraduate ceremonies. John and I have both graduated here.

On my first morning, while John was at his meeting, I met an old friend, Jacky, in Firth Court’s café. Jacky is one of only two people whom I knew during both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees: we studied History (1975-8) and Librarianship (1979-80) together. I left Sheffield, but Jacky stayed on working in the University Library through which I was able to contact her. Despite not having met since the early 1980s, the years rolled away and we spent a couple of hours chatting over coffee, catching up and sharing memories.

The Arts Tower

Many new buildings have appeared round campus since I was a student, but in my opinion the 78 metre tall Arts Tower (1966) is still the university’s greatest icon. Despite the name, all the Arts departments have long since outgrown it and moved out, but in my first two years History occupied Floor 9. Here’s the Tower by night and day.

The university is surrounded by parkland. Here’s the Tower again from Weston Park and Crookes Valley Park. One of the first things John and I ever did together was take a rowing boat out on Crookes Valley pond.

As well as stairs and two ordinary lifts, the Arts Tower has a paternoster lift – a chain of open compartments that move in a continuous loop up and down the building. Here’s John descending and looking a bit wary – he’s never used it before. Being an engineer, he had no reason to visit the Arts Tower.

If you’re only going a few floors the paternoster can be quicker than waiting for the standard lift. I used it a lot and, although I never consciously felt nervous, I must have had some underlying anxiety because I occasionally dreamt about it. Either the lift would speed up so that it was going too fast to jump out, or the gap between lift and floor would suddenly increase so that it was too wide to jump across. Needless to say, neither of these things ever happened!

In my final year, History moved out of the Arts Tower to a building now occupied by Nursing and Midwifery (left, below). The School of Librarianship was in a house on a street called Claremont Crescent. Although Librarianship is no longer there, several houses in the street are still owned by the University. I couldn’t identify the right one for sure: it could have been this one – or maybe not!

The Library

Next to the Arts Tower, and joined to it by a bridge between their mezzanine floors, is the Western Bank Library (1959) in which I spent many hours studying. These days, it houses the university’s research collections and undergraduate material has moved to the Information Commons (2007).

Western Bank’s Reading Room windows look out onto Weston Park, and I confess that some of that studying time might well have been spent watching the ducks on the pond.

The Students’ Union

Most students spend a lot of time in the Union with its range of cheap bars and cafés and space for gigs and the occasional ball. The red brick building, Graves, is the oldest part of Sheffield’s Union dating from the 1930s. In my first year, I lived in lodgings on the edge of the city so often ate in Graves Restaurant, or one of the refectories in the more modern part of the Union, before going home in the evening. The menu consisted mainly of pie and chips, sausage roll and chips, and – you get the picture. I put on quite a lot of weight that year, although I was still almost skeletal compared to my current size. The rest of the Union dates from the 1960s – a fancy new tower at the front and some coloured lighting can’t disguise the old place from me!

Other sights / sites around campus

In the gallery above:

  • Two street signs at the edge of the campus. How could I ever forget those names?
  • The University Drama Studio now, as then, housed in the former Glossop Road Baptist Church. I went to many a performance during both my degrees, and only one was so bad that we left in the interval.
  • A mural on the side of the old Henderson’s Relish factory (also shown). Henderson’s Relish is a spicy Yorkshire sauce.
  • Allen the Peregrine by Jason Heppenstall. Allen was originally made to celebrate the opening of IKEA Sheffield and is made entirely of – allen keys. Now he perches outside The Diamond, the university’s new engineering building. I met John there after his meeting and we spent the rest of the day with two other old friends, John and Jill.

So many memories, and more to come – next time, I’ll move off campus to look round the city.

The call to place: Hampshire

Anabel and Becky, Winchester 2018

Last week, I left you with a bit of a riddle. I said I would soon be off for a short break to the south coast of England with John who was visiting a university in a city where I lived briefly as a young woman. I also told you that it was near the home of a blogging friend whom I was going to meet, and invited you to guess where and who. By the time my scheduled post was published, that meeting had already taken place. The university was Southampton and the blogger was Becky who lives in nearby Winchester, when she’s not in the Algarve, and writes at The life of B and It caught my eye in Portugal.

Becky and I had been discussing a meetup for some months, envisaging that we would both travel to somewhere in-between our homes, but John’s trip was too good an opportunity to miss. He’s a regular, if infrequent, visitor to Southampton and I’ve wanted to accompany him for years, long before I knew Becky. Somehow, it never worked out, but this visit was on a Monday allowing us to make a weekend of it. Why was I so keen?

Let me take you back 40 years to 1978. I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Sheffield and hoping to study Librarianship at postgraduate level. To do this, you had to have a year’s experience working in a library. At that time, many councils and universities had Graduate Trainee posts which allowed you to experience all aspects of library work. I applied for several and accepted the first one I was offered – Hampshire County Council. I thus spent four months each working in Southampton, Winchester and Farnborough. Apart from one short visit a couple of years later, I’ve never been back until now. What would be different? What had stayed the same?

I have very few photographs of that time. Forgive the quality of this one, scanned from an old slide, which shows me standing outside Southampton Central Library in the autumn of 1978. My very first library job. Could I replicate this picture?

Anabel in Southampton, 1978

We had a wonderful weekend searching for the answers to these questions. On Saturday, we met Becky in Winchester. I can report that she is an excellent tour guide, and I’m very grateful to her for taking a few hours out of her busy schedule to show us around. On Sunday, John and I took a walk through Southampton’s Old Town and on Monday, while John was working, I did some more exploring myself and hunted down some old haunts. Full posts on Southampton and Winchester will appear in due course*.

As for my year in Hampshire, it passed very quickly and in October 1979 I returned to Sheffield to study for my MA. While there, I met John as I’ve already described in a previous post. He had another year to go on his PhD in Sheffield, but I was going back to Hampshire. Part of the traineeship arrangement was that I (and 5 other trainees) would work for the council for at least two years after university. The library would save up librarian vacancies during our year out and slot us in when we returned. However, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had been elected and all the talk was of cuts, cuts, cuts. Much like now.

In the early summer of 1980, Hampshire wrote to say they had no librarian vacancies but would appoint returning trainees to library assistant posts and we would all have to compete for anything better that came up. This was a blow. When I told John, he said “You could write and tell them you’re getting married and don’t want to come back.” What! This was the first time the M word had been mentioned between us, so I took it as a proposal and, well, here we still are.

I didn’t actually say that to Hampshire, but I suggested that, as they were obviously having difficulty finding jobs for us all, it was in everyone’s interests if I applied elsewhere. Luckily, I got a job in Nottinghamshire – much nearer Sheffield! But I did wonder as I toured Winchester last week what our lives would have been like if I had gone back.

Many of you will know Cathy who has created several blogs over the years but is now settling down as ~wander.essence~. She’s revamping her approach to travel writing and is encouraging us to do so too. One of her challenges is Call to PlaceI invite you to write a 700-900 word (or less) post on your own blog about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or a future particular destination. I’m linking this post to that invitation – Cathy’s own most recent call to place is to the Four Corners area of the USA. Follow the link to find out more.

*See:

How we met

21st March 1981. The minister is my Dad.

It was our wedding anniversary last week. I celebrated in Glasgow, and John celebrated by flying to China on business. Oh well, we’ve celebrated a few anniversaries already (36 of them, mostly together) and hopefully have quite a few more to come, so I’m not complaining. Too much.

Last year I mentioned our anniversary in my March Gallivanting post, and had originally included a section on how we met. As the post grew longer and longer, I had to cut it out. I think this year’s March post might be a long one too and, as I have nothing else written for this week, here’s that section now.

How we met

Anabel and John, March 81

In autumn 1979 I went to Sheffield to do my Masters in Librarianship. I moved into a student flat in Victoria House which I shared with four other young women: two more postgraduates and two first-year undergraduates. We felt quite sorry for the first-years, who seemed to have nothing in common, and decided they needed more friends. We were thinking female and their own age (18 – we were looking down at them from the lofty height of 22). Between us, we leafleted all the flats in the block inviting people to meet in our kitchen to set up some social events.

What we didn’t know was that our flat was not typical and, apart from us and two women downstairs, the occupants were all men. Postgraduate men. As our kitchen filled up with them I answered the door to the last arrival. Readers, I would have been astonished to know it, but this was my future husband. However, I can report that my very first thought was “Oh no, not another old man!” Not a promising start.

After a bit of discussion, our large group of men and a few women hit the nearest pub then dispersed in smaller groups to various other destinations, the local curry-house in my case. I didn’t see John again that evening and, apart from the odd hello when passing on the stairs, didn’t speak to him again all term. He admits to a flicker of interest but noticed that I had a boyfriend already.

By January that relationship was over. One evening, my flatmate and I returned from the cinema to find John and his friends had tied climbing ropes to their balcony and were abseiling down the building. (This photo of me on the balcony outside our kitchen gives you some idea of how it worked. There were three floors, we were on the middle one and John was immediately above.) Conversation ensued, and we were invited to a concert the following night for which John was doing the “on-stage visuals” (remember this was 1980, it meant he was operating the slide projector). We became friendly as a group,  John and I soon became a couple and we got married the following March.

Romantic? I think so! Let me know in the comments if you have a better story.

On being 90

Last month, we celebrated my Mum’s 90th birthday. Here, she describes the weekend on her own blog.

It was always sunny

Chris Mitchell 90thOn the 21st October 2016 I became a nonagenarian. When I was a wee girl I was very proud to have been born on Trafalgar Day, which in these far-off times was celebrated widely. I was also exactly six months younger than Princess Elizabeth of York, which pleased me when I was old enough to know. When I began to feel I might make it to ninety I had a trawl through the internet to see who, apart from Nessie and Nancy, Paisley Methodist friends, might be sharing the occasion. There were quite a lot, most of whom I’d never heard of, but two appealed to me.

John and I were tremendous fans of the first and had a great admiration for him. He is now regarded as a National Treasure, not surprisingly. He opened our eyes to the wonderful wildlife in many places in the world which few of…

View original post 1,284 more words

3 Day Quote #3: Dad

John Mitchell 1929-2015
John Mitchell 1929-2015

To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter. -Euripides, playwright (c. 480-406 BCE)

I subscribe to Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day email – every day a new word defined with examples of usage and a (usually unrelated) quote at the end. This one jumped out at me on 15th June. Why? A couple of weeks before, on 31st May, my dear Dad died and I hoped the quote was true. I wanted to pay tribute to him on this blog somehow, and La Sabrosona‘s challenge allows me to do that.

Dad would have been 86 on July 3rd and had been a minister and a preacher for over 60 years. When he gave up preaching a few years ago I started a blog with him, and to mark his birthday I posted his obituary, as written by his friend and colleague Wes Blakey. If you want to know more, head over to John Mitchell – called and sent. But this IS a travel blog, so I thought I’d celebrate Dad’s life with some childhood photos of us having fun at the seaside and in the country. I’m the big sister. And check out our Harry Potter-style Ford Anglia! I can still remember its registration, 823 LPP.

So thank you once again to La Sabrosona for her nomination. I find that these challenges can be valuable if they make you think. They can encourage you to post something you wouldn’t normally write about, or maybe to tackle a subject from a slightly different angle. However, as before, I’m not passing the nomination on to specific bloggers although I encourage anyone who has quotes to share to take part. You are all stars!